Ed Rivet, director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, has been encouraging his conservative compatriots to embrace clean energy technologies for nine years—beginning at the inception of the organization. His special challenge along the way: He avoids mentioning climate change as a reason to move away from fossil fuels because many in his audience reject that science. We sat down with Ed to see what issues are most alive for him today as big clean energy dollars get set to flow from the Inflation Reduction Act, the carbon concentration in the atmosphere rises by the year—and push-back against renewable energy infrastructure gets, at times, pretty ugly.
Groundwork: Ed, there have been some important changes in the past couple of years regarding climate in the United States. Studies show over two-thirds of Americans support climate change action by government. We are back in the Paris accord. And Congress passed a package with about $370 billion aimed at stopping the release of carbon to the atmosphere. How has the changing tenor of the climate conversation changed your work?
Ed Rivet: Really, I’d say our approach today is not that much different than it’s ever been. Our involvement is based on a paradigm. Part of that is that we promote whatever the latest and greatest energy technology is that we see as advancing a lot of benefits. So, we are not looking only at if a technology will reduce emissions and help the climate. We will also look at will it create jobs, will it provide development opportunities, strengthen the grid, make us more energy secure. We’ve focused on those principles from the beginning, and I don’t see us changing that. The technologies we talk about might change, but I don’t see much changing otherwise.
What’s another pillar of your approach?
We promote more competition in the energy markets. That’s based on principles of a free market, so that’s also not going to change. For example, if we want to see rooftop solar advance, that’s about free markets and innovation in the grid and innovation in technologies. The specifics change, but our broad principles do not.
So what are some of those specific changes that have shifted?
We’ve seen some things intensify. Opposition to siting wind and solar infrastructure has certainly intensified. We have a team of five people focused on getting local communities to approve large scale wind and solar. Each person has special areas they devote their time to. But we are helping 15 partners right now trying to site projects in Michigan. That is taking more and more effort. The siting environment has become politically charged in a number of places. We’ve had to ratchet up our intensity in advocating to see success.
What kind of local opposition are you seeing?
Well, nothing frustrates me more than an individual standing up and saying he supports reducing emissions and fighting climate change, but you can’t put that solar facility in my community. It makes me angry because I’m a conservative and I don’t go around touting the climate message, yet I have solar at my house, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and an electric car. And so when someone says don’t put a solar field two miles from my house, I say take action or shut up. That is my personal opinion.
Is there a specific type of group showing up to oppose siting efforts?
No, not one type. I’ve even seen people from environmental groups show up and oppose solar or wind in their community. You already have climate skeptics going into a politically red community, and it’s already difficult enough to get past the biases of those people. Maybe the reason I’m so visceral about this is the opposition is all about viewshed. Ninety-five percent of opponents say they just don’t want to see it. But you know, you can plant trees around a solar field, and if your lights are powered by wind and solar it will be cheaper now and in the future. If you embrace solar, you will have long-term affordable energy. But your concern is you don’t want to see it? Seriously?
I grew up in Bay City where a coal-fired plant sits on the shore of Saginaw Bay. I could see the tower from a lot of places, seeing the smokestack dumping mercury in Saginaw Bay. I could not eat fish there because there was too much mercury. When I hear people complain about a solar field, I can’t help but think most of them never complained about the coal plant that was providing them electricity and dumping mercury in the bay because it wasn’t their bay, and now they are complaining about a technology that has none of the problems coal has. It’s practically the most benign industrial technology on the planet.
How are renewable energy and energy conservation opportunities in the IRA affecting your work?
We are stepping up our activity in the weatherization space. That really affects people’s lives. People can cut their energy bill by 30%, 40%, and that is huge for limited income people. And if 30% fewer emissions are coming from one person’s house, and you multiply that by thousands of houses—that’s a major impact on carbon emissions. When our nation gets that system working well, it will employ people, save money, and reduce emissions. For us, that is worth getting in there to make the system work.
Give us a sense for what you are doing on the ground to convince communities to accept solar and wind infrastructure.
My field guy travels constantly. This week he has not been home in three days. He goes to community meetings, planning meetings, talks to commission members, school boards, fire chiefs, libraries—people benefitting from taxes that solar and wind produce. Part of the advocacy is letting people know there are win-wins in this. We meet every Monday morning and see what’s on the stack, set the priorities. Maybe there’s a referendum to keep out solar—we’ll send someone. We’ve seen several times that if an anti-clean energy ordinance fails to pass, people will attempt to recall the commissioners. Last November we saw three communities recall commissioners, seven commissioners in all. Seven more were recalled on May 2, this year.
We are at the point of an existential threat to renewable development, and that is not an exaggeration. Consumers Energy wants 8 gigawatts of solar. DTE does as well. That’s a big part of the state portfolio. We need that if we are going to meet the emission targets.
What kinds of changes would you like to see?
Everybody’s model is “maximize profit.” Yes we want solar fields near transmission lines for efficiency and to save money. We want the most revenue for least inputs. But I think we have to make the installations smaller and disperse them. We need to put aside maximum profit so communities don’t feel an excessive amount of burden from having a 1,000-acre solar field in their township. We also need to strengthen the state zoning law. Right now the weaknesses in the state zoning allow this vigilante township thing. People are threatened. People are attacked. Cars are keyed. There are terrible threats to people just because they are sitting on a planning commission or zoning board. We need to allow some give and take.
Are you glass half-full or glass half-empty on this?
What I know is if we can change these system challenges, the developer community is ready to put up scads of capacity. They are so ready to build, 24/7 construction. That’s if we can find the secret sauce on zoning. In terms of willingness and capacity to build this out by 2030, heck yeah, we are ready to go. I am optimistic that give and take will get us down the road on this. But … if we don’t do something now, two years from now there there could be no renewable development because townships will kill it. And you can’t buy renewable energy if you can’t put it in.
How much farmland does Michigan need for solar?
Well, right now about 750,000 acres of Michigan farmland is used to grow corn for ethanol. If we used just 30% to 40% of that for solar, we’d have all we need. We’re encouraging farmers to put up solar and harvest electrons. They’d still be fueling our cars, but with electrons instead of corn and ethanol.
Jeff Smith, Communications Director